No matter what you’ve heard, Congress had a productive year. No really, numbers don’t lie. The 114th Congress passed a significant number of major policies into law. Sit back and catch up on some of the biggest legislative moments of the year!

Medical Cures   |   Water Resources  |   Puerto Rico   |   JASTA   |   Obama SOTU   |   Toxic Substances   |   NDAA   |   Trade Secrets   |   CARA   |   Modi Address   |   Zika Response   |   Government Funding   |   GMO Labeling

Medical Cures

Congress passed sweeping medical innovation legislation designed to boost disease research, address opioid epidemic, revamp federal mental health programs, and hasten government approval of drug and medical devices. Heard of 21st Century Cures? This is that. It's been in the works for three years and is largely considered the "biggest health reform bill since the Affordable Care Act."

You see, the House passed one large bill in July, whereas the Senate passed several smaller bills. Then lawmakers worked together to reconcile disagreements over funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and changes to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) device approval pathways. The resulting version included House-passed mental health reform and changes to foster care policies.

Ultimately, the House passed the bipartisan legislation by a vote of 392-26, whereas the Senate approved by a  vote of 94-5.

  • How your Representative voted
  • How your Senators voted
  • Why President Obama signed the legislation
  • See the bill signing ceremony

Water Resources Development Act (WRDA)

This year both House and Senate passed versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Heard of WRDA before? That’s likely because Congress has passed ten previously, with the first dating back to 1974 and the most recent in 2007. They are typically technical bills that outline the uses, security, and infrastructure of water resources, and thus don’t receive much media attention. However, this year government funding negotiations hung partially on funding for Flint, Michigan and WRDA became a focal point, the vehicle for Flint funding. Bipartisan compromises brought both WRDA and the CR (continuing resolution) to the finish line.

Rewind to September when both the House and Senate passed separate versions. Both included emergency funding for Flint, Michigan but differing amounts. The House version focused on water infrastructure, while the Senate version focused on flood control and water transportation. Lawmakers worked together to reconcile differences and unveiled compromise legislation, including provisions aimed at the California drought. Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer [D, CA] ended her career with a filibuster over the surprise rider. The Senate rounded out the year with a marathon session running into Saturday morning and passing the legislation by a vote of 78-21.

  • How your Representative voted
  • How your Senators voted
  • Why President Obama signed the legislation

Puerto Rico Debt Crisis

In 2016, Congress examined the circumstances that led to Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt crisis and passed legislation in response. Several bills were introduced and ultimately the House Natural Resources Committee headed up the legislative resopnse. The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Stability Act (PROMESA) was the result of bipartisan compromises, Congressional leadership support, and the backing of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

The legislation prevents lawsuits from creditors, creates a financial oversight board to control Puerto Rico’s budget (with the ability to reorder the priority of creditors), and allows the federal minimum wage to be lowered to $4.25 for workers under 24 years old. The oversight board will operate independently of the Puerto Rican government and restructure its finances, similar to the oversight boards created in Detroit and New York City. Additionally, PROMESA prevents a taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico’s debt. President Obama signed the legislation into law, just one day before the July 1st deadline where Puerto Rico was expected to default on $2 billion of debt, including $800 million of Constitutionally backed general obligation debt.

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law S. 337: FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and S. 2328: Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)

House and Senate unanimously passed a bill allowing 9/11 victims and relatives to sue Saudi Arabia or any other countries over possible roles in the 2001 terrorist attacks. President Obama vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), saying the legislation could threaten U.S. sovereignty in the future and allow foreign nationals to bring suits against the U.S. in foreign courts.

Congress then voted to override the veto from President Obama for the first time in his tenure as President of the United States (and just months shy of being the first president in 47 years to avoid a veto override). The Senate voted 97-1, while the House voted 348-77. This was a big deal — the legislation creates an exception to U.S. laws barring lawsuits against foreign governments and possibly opening up Americans abroad to reciprocal lawsuits.

A day after Congress voted to override the veto, top lawmakers expressed concerns about the possible unintended consequences of the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said he wanted to find a way “to protect our service members overseas from any kind of legal ensnarements or retribution” while still allowing 9/11 victims and their families the ability to sue Saudi Arabia. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said, “There will be an attempt to narrow the effect of what we’ve done.” However, two of the bill's main authors Sens. John Cornyn [R, TX] and Chuck Schumer [D, NY] dismissed the idea of narrowing the legislation. Possible solutions include limiting the bill’s scope to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, amending technical definitions and thresholds, and establishing a tribunal of experts to first determine culpability. No further action was taken in the 114th Congress.

  • House and Senate passed by voice vote. No individual vote records available.
  • Why President Obama vetoed the legislation
  • How your Representative voted on the presidential veto override
  • How your Senators voted on the presidential veto override


Final Obama State of the Union

The State of the Union address is an annual speech by the President to a joint session of Congress. This year marked President Obama’s final State of the Union, addressing equal pay, technology, climate change, jobs, education, and healthcare. In his final address, President Obama asked Vice President Joe Biden to head up a new national task force to end cancer. The Cancer Moonshot coalition steadily gained momentum and was addressed in the 21st Century Cures Act. Read full report.

Of note, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley [R] delivered the Republican response to the 2016 State of the Union. In November, President-elect Donald Trump selected Haley to serve as Ambassador to the United Nations. The Senate will hold confirmation hearings and vote in the 115th Congress. Write to your Senators!


Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)​

The Senate’s favorite odd couple worked together to overhaul a 40-year-old toxic chemicals law. Sens. Barbara Boxer [D, CA] and Jim Inhofe [R, OK] shepherded changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the main law regulating chemicals in everyday products, from cleaning supplies to pesticides to laundry detergents.

House and Senate lawmakers reconciled differences in passed legislation, and the House went on to pass the bill by a vote of 403-12. Initially, Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] delayed Senate passage with a hold, saying he needed more time to read the 180-page bill. Eventually, the Senate cleared the legislation by voice vote. President Obama signed the legislation into law, saying it “represents a historic advancement for both chemical safety and environmental law.” The legislation was renamed in honor of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg [D, NJ] who worked for years to update the chemical safety law. Learn more about how bipartisanship got this legislation to the finish line.

  • How your Representative voted
  • Senate passed by voice vote. No individual vote records available.
  • Why President Obama signed the legislation
  • See the bill signing ceremony


National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sets the budget and expenditure for the Department of Defense each year. Coupled with defense appropriations bills, it is how Congress oversees the defense budget. This year the House and Senate passed separate versions, differing on selective service requirements, federal contractor discrimination, and funding levels.

Eventually, lawmakers struck a deal — agreeing to omit controversial provision that Democrats said would allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and a requirement that women register for the draft. Instead, the compromise legislation requires a study of the entire selective service system and provides the biggest raise in military pay in 5 years. The bill authorizes $618.7 billion in spending, including $59.5 billion for a war fund known as the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account. The House passed the legislation by a vote of 375-34, while the Senate approved by vote of 92-7.

Trade Secrets Protections

Congress passed trade secrets legislation, with some describing the new protections as "the most significant expansion of federal law in intellectual property in 70 years." The bill allows companies to sue entities for trade secret theft in federal court. Previously, only the Justice Department can sue on allegations of trade secrets theft.

The Senate unanimously passed the legislation in April, and the House followed suit later in the month by a vote of 410-2. President Obama signed the legislation into law, commending members of Congress for their bipartisanship in passing “this strong enforcement bill.”

  • How your Representative voted
  • How your Senators voted
  • Why President Obama signed the legislation

POPVOX Trade Secrets Legislation

Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA)​

You probably heard about CARA this year, and no it’s not a person; it’s the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), the most expansive federal legislation to date for addiction support services.

CARA expanded opioid addiction intervention, prevention, and education efforts and included provisions to support parents and caretakers, while increasing the ability of law enforcement agencies and first responders to counter overdoses. The legislation increased resources available to incarcerated individuals afflicted with addiction disorders and strengthened states’ ability to monitor drug prescriptions.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 94-1 in March. Then in May the House passed several opioid bills and requested a conference with the Senate. The two chambers met in conference in July, working to resolve differences in their versions of passed legislation and the House went on to pass CARA by a vote of 407-5.

  • How your Representative voted
  • How your Senators voted
  • Why President Obama signed the legislation

S.524 CARA Timeline POPVOX.001

Indian Prime Minister Modi Addressed Congress

Speaker Paul Ryan invited Indian Prime Minister Modi to address a joint meeting of Congress, marking the first joint-meeting of Ryan’s speakership. Modi celebrated the ties between India and the United States and spoke of the U.S.-India partnership in trade, defense, and climate change. The visit and address to Congress highlighted the remarkable progress between the two countries over the last few decades, particularly the last few years. The Obama administration has called the U.S.-India relationship the “defining partnership of the 21st century” and views India as an Asian ally to counter China.



Zika Virus Response

In February, President Obama sent a request to Congress for $1.9 billion to combat the Zika virus. In July, the House passed a conference report that contained $1.1 billion in Zika funding. However, the bill (appropriations for Military Construction and the Veterans’ Administration) contained several provisions that Democrats consider “poison pills,” including prohibitions on funding for Planned Parenthood and loosening of environmental restrictions on pesticides.

In a rare late night session, the House voted 239-171 around 3 A.M. Thursday to approve the $82.5 billion annual appropriations bill (including funding to combat the Zika virus). Democrats then blocked the bill three times in the Senate, with the chamber failing to invoke cloture on the legislation. Ultimately, these funds for Zika ended up in the stop-gap spending bill to fund the government through December 9. 

Government Funding

So if you're keeping track, yes you did hear of two continuing resolutions (CRs) this year. The first was a stop-gap measure to fund the government through Dec. 9, giving appropriators more time to negotiate 2017 spending measures. It included a provision preventing the SEC from requiring public companies to disclose their political spending, as well as funding for combating Zika virus, implementing CARA, and aiding disaster relief efforts. The second CR funded the government at current levels (with a slight boost to defense spending) through April 28, 2017. The legislation included funding for Flint, Michigan ($170 million) and Cures legislation ($872 million) and sold $375 million in crude oil from strategic oil reserve for the Energy Security and Infrastructure Modernization Fund. It eased restrictions for retired military members to be confirmed and changes truckers' off duty requirements. *Government shutdown averted*

  • How your Representative voted on the first CR
  • How your Senators voted on the first CR
  • How your Representative voted on the second CR
  • How your Senators voted on the second CR

GMO Labeling

After failing to invoke cloture the first time, the Senate went on to pass a GMO labeling bill by a vote of 63-30. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. Pat Roberts [R, KS] and Debbie Stabenow [D, MI], creates a national, mandatory standard for disclosing foods that contain genetically modified organism ingredients. The bill requires food containing GMO ingredients to be labeled using print, pictures, or scannable bar codes.

If the bill title confuses you (S. 764 "Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015," you’re not alone. The bill passed the Senate after some initial confusion over its contents. Lawmakers debated whether the words Planned Parenthood would appear in the bill. Confusion mounted as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called up a House-passed bill aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood, only to strip it of its language and use it as vehicle for Genetically Modified Organism labeling bill. The bill later passed the House by a vote of 306-117 and headed to President Obama, who signed the bill into law.

  • How your Representative voted
  • How your Senators voted

Please keep in mind that highlighting a bill does not imply POPVOX endorsement in any way. As always, our goal is to offer one more way to help you stay informed about the complex U.S. legislative system.